POPE of PEPPERS

“You should feel the heat in five or ten seconds,” said Paul B o s l a n d, his blue eyes boring into mine while I chewed my Past bite of chile r e l l e n o at La P o s t a, an old-time T e x-M e x restaurant in the dusty desert town of M e s i l l a, New Mexico. As a botany professor at nearby New Mexico State University, and the worlds leading chile pepper expert, researcher and all-around car¬nival barker, B o s l a n d has the swept-back silver hair and mustache of a late-period Mark Twain crossed with the young Frank Zappa.

“Yep,” I said, getting worried, “here comes that heat, right on schedule.”

“Should be mid-palate,” B o s l a n d replied, watching me with the clinical detachment of an evil doctor conducting human toxicology experiments. That is if you can picture an evil doctor slurping an icy-cold Chile ’Rita, a m a r g a r i t a punched up with B e s i t o C a l i e n t e, a blackberry-plus-habanera hot sauce.

My whole mouth, meanwhile, was turning into one of those controlled burns you see by high¬ways out West.

“And it should be flat heat,” B o s l a n d said, between further slurps of his Chile ’Rita. “Kind of painted on. Not sharp like needles jabbing into your lips and tongue.” He made a stabbing gesture with his fingers. “That would be more like a j a l a p e n o.”

I groped for my own Chile ’Rita.

“But right… now” B o s l a n d said, before I could lip the straw, “as you finish swallowing, you should feel fine again, sort of, ‘I want another bite.’”

To my surprise, I did. I’d never been a spicy-food guy. Childhood trauma in a Mexican restaurant, pretty red sauce in a bowl, distracted mommy… But I’d flown to New Mexico to change that, to man up and eat some hot food and find out once and for all why people so crave chile-pepper spice. I wanted to know why hot sauces like Pucker Butt, Bad Seed and Dave’s Insanity Sauce are one of the fastest-growing industries in America. I wanted to know what it is about chiles that can support a New Jersey nursery devoted to them, selling 500 different chile-plant varieties (chile plants. com). And why thousands converge annually on the Chile Pepper Extravaganza in New Orleans put on by Chile Pepper Magazine (with the tag line “Live the Z e s t y Life”).”

New Mexico felt like the obvious place for my chile quest for three reasons: First, the official state question is “Red or green?” as in my La P o s t a waiter’s question, “Would you like red or green chile sauce on your enchilada?” Second and third: Paul B o s l a n d and Dave DcWitt. These two are gurus in the world of chiles and call New Mexico home. DeWitt hosts the annual

National Fiery Foods & Barbecue Show in Albuquerque, which is the undisputed grand daddy of all spicy food shows. It draws

1) people a year for tastings of everything from hot sauces to chile-flavored cheese doodles. And Paul B o s l a n d s Chile Pep¬per Institute at New Mexico State has been so successful that bleak little Las C r u c e s, population 99,000, now ranks as the world epicenter of chile-pepper agricultural research, attracting postdoctoral fellows from Asia, Europe and South America.

Straight from the airport, before meeting B o s l a n d, I’d stopped for a poblano-rajas b u r r i t o that only hurt until I soaked my tongue in cold root beer (sugar being one of the known antidotes to chile spice, second only to milk). And now, at La P o s t a, precisely when B o s l a n d predicted I would want another bite, I did. Forking still more r e l l e n o into my flaming mouth, I plunged back Into the pain- pleasure synergy that makes chile peppers unlike any other food.

Capsaicin, the chemical in hot chiles that we experience as spicy heat, may have evolved as a defense mechanism. All mammals have skin and mouth receptors that respond to capsaicin as if it were causing heat burns, although without actual cell dam¬age. Birds do not have these receptors, allowing them to eat chiles, then spread the seeds far and wide.

Humans seem to have hacked this evolutionary defense, realizing it doesn’t hurt us and that the tingling pain of capsaicin can be deliciously pleasurable. Theories abound for why humans are the only mammals that seek out chiles, and also for why chiles are more common in the cuisines of hot-climate countries. Chiles do cause sweat, cooling the skin. But a more plausible explanation has to do with capsaicins antimicrobial properties: without refrigeration in hot climates perhaps our paleolithic forebears figured out that chile peppers help to preserve meat by killing harmful bacteria. Then there’s the gastronomic bungee jump theory, the idea that its all about extreme experience. Penn State researchers have studied this question, finding that people who enjoy sensation-seeking behaviors, such as “driving fast on a twisty road,” also tend to enjoy spicy food, while cautious people prefer their food mild.

B o s l a n d leans toward a medicinal explanation, the idea that humans cultivated chiles for their pain-killing effects.

“We know from an ancient A z t e c codex that they would put chiles on toothaches,” he says. But why we love chiles is a whole lot less important to B o s l a n d than the plain truth that we do. His entire career, in fact, can be described as one big effort to exploit and expand that human love for capsaicin.

“I always joke, ‘I put all my chiles in one basket,’” B o s l a n d told me, of his professional life.

His laboratories have partnered with Korean and Chinese labs to sequence the chile pepper genome. And B o s l a n d has also developed precise language for describing chile heat, which is what he applied to my experience of that chile r e l l e n o. First, there’s “development,” as in how fast it lights up your palate. Then there’s “duration,” as in how long it continues to burn. Next is “location,” as in where you sense it, ranging from lip-and-tongue to the back of your throat. After that comes “feeling,” like that pinpricks-versus-painted-on distinction. Finally there’s “intensity,” measured in Scoville Heat Units ranging from zero for sweet bell peppers up to 2,500 for the New Mexican chile inside my relleno. At more than 2 million Scoville units is the fabled Scorpion pepper of Trinidad, currently rated as the world’s hottest. That makes it the chile of choice among young men like the one calling himself the L. A. Beast, who cat Scorpion peppers raw and then post videos of their physical melt downs on YouTube, complete with slack-jawed drooling, sauna-like sweating and, sometimes, vomiting.

B o s l a n d has also combined these metrics with flavor notes confirmed through High Pressure Liquid Chromatography, the same process used by wineries to identify what exactly makes cheap merlot, for example, taste like plum jam. The resulting Chile Pepper Flavor Wheel, a card modeled after wine-flavor wheels, offers wine-like taste descriptors, such as the “perfume, smokey, oak hint” typical of NuMex Sunflare chiles. “I want to be the Robert Mondavi of chile peppers,” B o s l a n d told me.

Some of B o s l a n d ‘s colleagues consider wine the wrong model for chile-pepper market expansion. Dave DeWitt, in particular, producer of that National Fiery Foods & Barbecue Show, worries that once you go with the wine comparison, “you start using wine terminology, and everybody knows what a bunch of crap wine terminology is.” It bears mentioning that DeWitt and B o s l a n d are friends and co¬authors, having collaborated on The Complete Chile Pepper Book. That title is just one of 35 chile-related books authored by DeWitt to date, alongside 1,001 Best Hot and Spicy Recipes and The Chile Pepper Encyclopedia.

“I found my niche, and I’ve been milking the same chile pepper for 30 years,” DeWitt told me over a beer at what amounts to his throne room, the flower-bedecked bar of El Pinto, a 1,000-seat New Mexican restaurant with an annual chile-pepper consumption rate of about 200 tons. I’d driven up the morning after my Bos¬land dinner, taking 1-25 north through abject desert into Albuquerque. Now, following

DeWitt through El Pinto’s countless dining rooms and then into its salsa factory, we talked mostly about food and recipes.

DeWitt allows that habaneras have distinctive “fruity apricot-type aroma” while dried Mexican p a s i l l a s and anchor lean toward raisin-like notes. He also told me he has 5,000 chile- related recipes in his archives, including an Indonesian water- buffalo stew called ran dang, the Yucatecan habanera salsa known a s x n i p e c, or “dog’s nose,” and even a traditional Russian salsa (if you can imagine such a thing) mixing peppers with chopped raw beets. “The list goes on and on and on and on, be¬cause people have deep passion for peppers. I went to a super¬market once in Malaysia and the hot sauce section had two aisles eight feet tall with hundreds if not thousands of hot sauces and curry pastes!” DeWitt marveled. He confided that he carries a little leather travel case everywhere he goes, holding vials of chile pepper to punch up the odd bland meal. “Like somebody taking their little spoon and cocaine with them,” he said, leading me toward the El Pinto lunch buffet.

Dish after dish offered the choice between red and green sauces, but also the question that matters most: “Mild or hot?”

“It is a mania,” DeWitt said. But it’s not a passing trend.

“It’s been going on for so long. I ask people sometimes, ‘Have you ever known anybody who’s been indoctrinated who’s gone back to bland?”’

In my own study, at least, with its admittedly small sample size of one, the answer came through my surprising choice on everything from the red p o s o l e to the green-chile-and-pork stew. Hot, in other words, the only option that could possibly satisfy DeWitt, B o s l a n d and, with the demons of childhood finally put to rest, me.

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